March 2 , 2008
Commentary by Rick Marshall
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23 needs very little discussion. It invites meditation rather than analysis. It observes one of the most basic existential truths: life lived in the valley of the shadow of death. Sartre or Camus would love the sense of dread that shadow inspires, or Kierkegaard. Realizing such an existential predicament triggers one of two responses: fear or trust. The psalm opts for trust based on the nature of the God described in the opening verses. Martin Buber would affirm the importance of the central address: Thou. “For Thou art with me.” It is personal; it is relational. The sense of guidance, care and protection, and ultimately of meaning, is powerful. Psalm 23 can be read by the congregation as an affirmation of trust and even courage.
But the two other assigned narratives--1Samuel and John--reveal a much more complicated divine involvement in human affairs.
The 1 Samuel text is from a much larger narrative: the rise and eventual failure of the King David enterprise. The context to the text is that the people of Israel want to have a king so that they can be like the other nations. Their God is shocked, hurt and resistant of the request, yet eventually offers a candidate: Saul. We watch Saul’s rise and failure, ending with a divine “I told you so.” Yet, at the same time, God has an eye on someone else. The divine presence in the story, the choices of kings, are what provide the narrative tension. Our text today is the part of the story that reveals the divine choice for King of Israel. Samuel is called to a certain village and to a certain family. Notice that the text is shrouded with the fear of Saul. His failed yet desperate and dangerous presence is evident. Samuel is afraid of Saul. The village is afraid. The Prophet goes through all the sons of Jesse in what feels like a beauty contest. None of them will do. Are there any others? Yes, the youngest son who is out in the fields. Get him. David appears before Samuel and it becomes evident that this young boy gets the divine endorsement to be King of Israel. David is unexpected. The usual biblical pattern of divine choice is for the second son. But in this story, David is dead last, almost an afterthought. He is coronated on the spot. Notice that this process of selection of a king is outside the normal parameters of succession of kings. No family ties. So blood line. No violence or overthrow. No military action. No voting. Yet, there is a threat of trouble, even dread, permeating the proceedings. The seed of the strategy against the king is planted. What will be sown other than grief? Who sets this plan in motion?
Look where the drama is. The divine complicity in the cross-current of fear and misunderstandings cannot be missed. Who is the instigator? Who is the main actor? God didn’t back Saul from the beginning. Samuel loved him and is heartbroken at Saul’s failure. He had hopes. God directs Samuel to go to Bethlehem because the divinely chosen king will be revealed there. Samuel’s and the villager’s fear is palpable. There is threat, danger hanging in the air. The villagers ask Do you come in peace? Yes, but under pretext. The lie was God’s idea. God says Tell them you come to sacrifice. Invite them, too. God has other motives. Samuel comes to town on a divine mission of ulterior motives. Bethlehem. Jesse’s house. Places and names usually celebrated at Christmas time, but not here. Jesse’s sons are paraded before Samuel. The first son comes on the runway. Surely, this must be him. No. “The Lord said to Samuel ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord sees not as a man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 16:7. Then God acts against the rebuke. For David was “ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” Then the Lord said, “Anoint this one.” This is only the beginning of the Divine affection for David. God is in love, enamored, struck, by David. So much for judging by inward qualities.
In terms of character and story development, God is the one who caused trouble in the story. Through playing favorites, through divine deception and half-truths, by subterfuge, the story becomes troubled. The characters are spun off into contrary positions, with only grief as the outcome.
The question then becomes, what do we do with this odd divine behavior? By the end of this sad story, David is a spectacular failure. What happened to the divine choice? Or, is the story of David simply a cautionary tale about human pride and divine disappointment? Did God learn anything from this in the same way that God learned from the Noah episode? Maybe even God asked the question, “What then is the nature of an Anointed One?” It’s hard for the reader to be so exposed to Divine hurt and, shall we say, divine failure. To understand the King David story is to be rattled to the bone in our confidence in “thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
Why did King David fail? The problem is in the nature of being a king; it is in the dynamic of empire. David embodied the wrong kind of power. The seed of failure is in the dark soil of kingly empire. Coercive power. The power to contain, control, manipulate, take the advantage, to demand respect, to ward off all enemies. To impose royal will David was doomed from the beginning, and we knew that even then. Oh, but what a glorious power it was!
The preacher can hold this story in tension with the other narrative, which shows Jesus embodying a different kind of power. The story of Jesus healing the man who was born blind takes on a different tone in light of the King David story.
It would be hard to literalize this story or even to turn it into a simple miracle story. A man who is blind from birth is presented to Jesus. Jesus’ disciples want to know who sinned to cause this man’s blindness, him or his parents. But Jesus’ answer is off kilter: It was neither, “but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” It would have been confusing enough had Jesus stopped there. But he didn’t. “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” What is an ordinary disciple supposed to do with this kind of talk? It would have seemed fine with the disciples had he stopped with this, but of course he doesn’t. “While he was saying this, “he spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle and anointed the man’s eyes with the clay, saying to him ‘Go, wash.’” John then has some dialogue between the neighbors and the healed man about the confusion of this strange anointing. Word makes its way to the authorities; they initiate legal proceedings. The healed man appears before them to give account. Who is the man who did this? I don’t know, maybe a prophet. His parents appear. They don’t know either; ask the son. The healed man appears again. I told you already. All I know is that once I couldn’t see and now I can. The healed man gets testy. They throw him out of court. Jesus finds him and asks, “Do you believe in the Son of man?” The healed man answers with another question, “And who is he that I may believe in him?” Jesus says It’s me and speaks more mysterious words, and John’s story ends with a statement about blindness and seeing. What’s an ordinary disciple to make of all this?
Maybe it’s best to go directly to metaphor and bypass any discussion of character development, conflict and conflict resolution. Obviously the story is about blindness. It’s about seeing and not seeing, perceiving and not perceiving. Those who have eyes to see, let them see. In the weird dynamic of dialogue and action, the only character that remains “clear eyed” is the healed man. He states the main action most directly: All I know is that once I couldn’t see, and now, because of this man Jesus, I can see. End of story. You go figure it out, he says. Maybe that’s all that can be said. Jesus, in spite of the confusing words, or maybe because of the confusion, draws attention to himself in such a way as to provoke curiosity, confusion. Maybe the confusion is meant to provoke questioning. Maybe it’s the narrative hammer on the hard nut of our skulls, breaking open the rigid preconceptions we glue and wire together to support our, wobbly, rigged world. It turns out to be a setup for one question:
What kind of power does this man embody?
Process Theology and the Text
Most of the narratives in the Bible reveal a divine character who is deeply involved in the unfolding of the stories. Other characters in the stories have power, too. There are few examples of stories where God simply imposes the divine will on human beings and is done with it, end of story. Often, God is the trouble maker, the one who complicates human interactions. The best biblical stories are about the dynamics between human will and divine will and how that tension gets worked out in troubling, surprising ways. Humans have power. Their decisions matter to God. Process thought believes that creatures have real power and that Divine power is not coercive, but persuasive. Therefore, there is a real dynamic between creatures and the Creator as the world continues to unfold.
Preaching the Text
There is a strong tradition of lionizing King David as an example of divine and human success. He is God’s man and is blessed. David’s troubles are mitigated by this divine blessing. Ultimately, what God has accomplished in King David stands as an example of what God can do with the right human being who has faith. Any preacher can settle for this stock view. It comes directly out of the play book on how to avoid the Bible. The preacher could help the congregants avert their gaze, confirm their simple affirmations of God’s imposing power and sing hymns of omnipotent power and glory.
Or, the preacher could help the congregation look directly at the story, and run the risk of getting into trouble in the process.
Because, on closer examination, the David story is a story of spectacular failure. Not simply human failure, but divine failure. How can God chose, support, bless, and rationalize such failure? The story raises more questions than it answers. And the questions have mostly to do with this troubled character, God. Who is this character? What are this character’s intentions? What motives this God? What do the character’s failures tell us? Is it possible that the King David character is presented as the opposite of Christ? King David as a cautionary figure? Jesus comes out of the line of David, from Bethlehem, from the line of Jesse, yet embodies the opposite qualities of King David? King David is the Lion, the image of coercive power, worldly, and lusting for empire. Jesus is the Lamb. It would be instructive to compare the characters of King David, and what he represents, with Jesus, and what he represents. And where is God is each representative? A preacher could get into real trouble with this.
Or the preacher could focus on Jesus healing the man born blind. This is a great story. There is a strong tradition with stories like this to literalize them as simple healing stories and to point to the imposing power and ability of God to miraculously heal.
I think it would be more helpful to expose the congregation to the story itself on its own terms and to lay out the characters, the nature of the conflict and the weirdness of the resolution. It seems procedural. Judges and witnesses, testimony. Decisions are rendered. It feels like a courtroom, which is odd because it has to do with a healing. It makes sense that decisions have to be made about truth claims and health benefits. The validity of any healing claims must be investigated. After all isn’t that the job of the Federal Drug Administration? There are technical considerations to take into account. The veracity of claims made must be discussed. Witnesses must be interviewed. People expect the proper authorities will make informed discussions about public wellness and safety. Yet, it is the juxtaposition of this world of truth validation that seems so familiar and expected to us, and the world of another kind of healing power. It comes down to the question of authority, which is properly raised in the story by the right people. Jesus, by whose authority do you do this? Not a simple question. The judges in the story are taking their responsibility of due diligence very seriously. The preacher should not fault them for this, because the preacher would have the same responsibility if someone came into their own congregation making spectacular claims about healing.
There is a more serious issue and it has to do with how we interpret what we see. And what is the relationship between seeing and perceiving? And how do our own needs and expectations determine what we see? Does our position in society, cultural standing, gender, race, religion, investments in the status quo, need for or fear of change, color our interpretation of what we perceive? We ask these questions because we must. We are in the position of the judges in the story. What kind of evidence could be presented to us that would convince us of the veracity of the kind of power Jesus is using and the claims that are made regarding it? It is a similar problem presented by the resurrection. What kind of evidence could be presented to us that would convince us of a resurrection? If a video camera was mounted in the tomb and was recording the time in question, what would we see? No matter what we saw, we would still be left with the problem of interpreting what we saw. The core evidence is the blind man’s statement that once I was blind and now I see. That is evidence for him and it’s all the evidence that he needs. What kind of evidence do others require? Something very different. There seems to be a quality of self-validation about this healing. “I don’t know what the power of God looks like, but I’ll know it when I experience it.” Or “When I experience the power of God it can’t be reduced to a truth claim, or a testimonial.” But what else do we have except people’s claims about their own experience? Again, this narrative raises more questions than it answers. But for the preacher, that’s where the gold it. The questions provide the narrative energy for sermons. The point of the sermon might be to provide a context for the questions the story raises about authority, seeing, healing.
Children and the Text
We see through our own needs. Tell the story of taking care of an infant. My grand daughter is only 3 months old. When I hold her in my arms, I often wonder what she sees when she is looking at me. She looks around, and focuses on this or that, or nothing. She seems to react to things that aren’t there, too. But what I do know is that when she’s hungry and crying, and when I bring the bottle to her mouth, that’s all she sees. When I’m driving down the street and I’m hungry, and when I see those two golden arches, I think “hamburger.” Describe Pavlov’s dog. We are often conditioned to see. It’s interesting to realize that we sometimes see only a small part of what we’re looking at.
Discuss how Jesus wanted people to see things differently. Talk about the story of Jesus healing the man who was born blind. How are we blind? How can we see differently? What would it be like to see things from someone else’s perspective? Imagine with the children what it would be like if they were a boy (if they are a girl) or a girl (if they were a boy). Talk about how they might see things differently. Or what if you were blind? Or deaf. What if you were your teacher, teaching you? What if you were your mom taking care of you? When we see things only from our selves and our own needs, we are often blind to other people and their needs.
The Rev. Rick Marshall has been pastor at the Brea Congregational Church, UCC, in Brea, California for 22 years. He is also on the Advisory Council of Process& Faith at the Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California.
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